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AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE » FALL 2010 » ISSUE 006

GAY AND GRȉȉK HOW LGBTQ STUDENTS NAVIGATE AU FRATERNITY CULTURE by Ashley Dejean

+ AU’S AFRICAN LIT PIONEER + A LOCAL RECESSION REMEDY + VOLUNTEERING FOR EMPIRE WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE » FALL 2010 » ISSUE 006

MISSION: AWOL is a progressive magazine run by American University students in Washington, DC. Founded in the spring of 2008 with support from Campus Progress, AWOL is now a recognized publication of American University. We exist to ignite campus discussion of social, cultural and political issues, and serve as an outpost for students to explore solutions to local and global problems. We hope to build bridges between American University and the world around it,

“Students at AU have a unique measure of access to the levers of global change. Instead of flying halfway around the world just to reinforce failed policies, we could be marching downtown to really change them.” - page 13

ultimately making our campus more inquiring, egalitarian and socially engaged. AWOL is not affiliated with any political party or ideology. Our stories have an angle, which is different from having an agenda; our reporting is impartial and fair, but our analysis is critical and argumentative.

EDITORS: EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: Chris Lewis MANAGING EDITORS: Alex Burchfield, Amberley Romo DESIGN & ART DIRECTION: Amberley Romo STAFF EDITORS: John Bly, Kelcie Pegher, Seth Shamon, Audrey Van Gilder

CUBA

CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Robbie Cavooris, Shay Longtain, Lori McCue, Priyanka Srinivasa

LAYOUT DESIGN:

By Chris Lewis p. 15

Hannah Karl, Emily Martin

PHOTOGRAPHERS AND ILLUSTRATORS: Samantha Baron, Louise Brask, Max Gibbons, Kurtis Gobencion, Margaret Hayford, Hannah Karl, Kyoko Takenaka, Ellie Yanagisawa

WRITERS: Sarah Allen, Robbie Cavooris, Ashley Dejean, Emily Edwards, Alexandra Gordon, Peter Harrison, Raymond Hear, Mahri Irvine, Ashley Joyce, Mike Lally, Erin Lockwood, Shay Longtain, Richard Phillips, Nora Pullen, Geoff Ramsey, Cate Regan, Emily Reid, Delaney Rohan, Matt Shlonsky, Charlene Shovic, Steve Spires, Priyanka Srinivasa

LIKE A STORY? HATE A STORY? Want to join AWOL? Write to us: awolau@gmail.com

SUPPORT/AFFILIATIONS: AWOL is published with support from Campus Progress / Center for American Progress (online at CampusProgress.org) and the support of AU Student Activities.

CORRECTION

THE UNLIKELY MUSLIM: HERNAN GUADALUPE On the cover of AWOL’s Spring 2010 issue, Hernan Guadalupe, the subject of our feature story “The Unlikely Muslim,” was represented in an illustration without prior consent. Our editorial staff was not aware that the illustration would come across as offensive, and we take full responsibility for the decision to portray Mr. Guadalupe in such a manner. The drawing misrepresented Mr. Guadalupe’s identity in two ways: the symbol on his chest is unrelated to his particular sect of Islam, and Mr. Guadalupe did not feel comfortable with such an illustration, given Islam’s turbulent history with cartoons. AWOL would like to extend a formal apology to Mr. Guadalupe for our editorial mistake. This magazine fully supports religious diversity and respects every individual’s preference to express him or herself in a manner he or she sees fit.


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SHOUTS FROM THE CORNER

FIELD REPORTS

JABS AND JEST

03 GET SERIOUS: STOP RIDICULING THE TEA PARTY

09 GAY AND GREEK HOW LGBTQ STUDENTS NAVIGATE AU FRATERNITY CULTURE

23 AWOL NEWSWIRE

by Peter Harrison The rational roots of an irrational movement

04 AWOL’S $12,000 BUDGET WITH STRINGS ATTACHED? by AWOL Staff Out of the red ink, into the red tape

06 PAINTINGS, PARTIES AND PERFORMANCES THE MANY FACES OF THE KATZEN ARTS CENTER by Emily Reid Not just for rehearsal anymore

07 THE HOME FRONT: WHERE THE RECESSION REALLY MATTERS by Richard Phillips DC’s budget crisis, and how to fix it

by Ashley Dejean The overlap — and divide — between two of AU’s biggest communities

13 VOLUNTEERS FOR EMPIRE OUR “HELP” ISN’T HELPING by Robbie Cavooris Who is serving whom?

15 REVOLUTIONARY TOURISM CUBA’S DEAL WITH THE DEVIL by Chris Lewis Cocktails and communism

19 NO / WONK ADVANCING UNIVERSITIES, NOT STUDENTS by Erin Lockwood You dislike “WONK.” Does AU care?

21 PROFESSOR PROFILE CHARLES LARSON by Chris Lewis A conversation with AU’s African lit heavyweight

by AWOL staff Our choice news picks

24 NONSENSICAL DATA OUR ERRATIC U.S. CENSUS by Nora Pullen Counting people is easy if you don’t have to do it right

25 SOCRATES AND THE SOPHISTS by John Bly WONK has got it all backwards

26 ANNOUNCING: THE AWOL BULLETIN BOARD by You The easiest way to write for AWOL


SHOUTS FROM THE CORNER

Informed opinion and provocative editorial

GET SERIOUS:

STOP RIDICULING THE TEA PARTY By Peter Harrison // Illustrations by Margaret Hayford

It is time to take the Tea Party seriously. No, really. Kneejerk ridicule of the Tea Party movement is easy, entertaining and commonplace. But it can no longer be an acceptable reply to a real movement that has penetrated a large segment of the American electorate. The group is not just a political punchline: Tea Party stalwarts like Rand Paul and Dan Coats will be joining the ranks of Congress in January. Tea Party candidates also defeated establishment Republicans in Alaska, Delaware, New York and New Hampshire primaries. A CBS News/New York Times poll published on Sept. 15th suggested that 19 percent of Americans are supportive, while “as many as 47 percent of registered voters nationwide say they are undecided or haven’t heard enough about the Tea Party movement to have an opinion about it.” The real question then becomes, why is the movement so popular? Much of the Tea Party’s appeal comes from its populist image. Everything about the movement radiates democracy, including its platforms, which began as “thousands of ideas” submitted and de-

bated by “thousands of freedom-loving Americans” on the Contract from America website from Sept. 2009 to Jan. 2010. These ideas were then whittled down to the 22 “most viable ideas” by “thousands of grassroots leaders nationwide” before finally being narrowed to 10 through open online voting. The result is a movement that followers feel speaks for them, even though many of the platforms were approved only by narrow majorities. This amorphousness, unquestioned by voters when couched in such democratic practice, has been essential to the party’s ability to unite such a large and diverse set of people on the American right. The group’s political outsider status is also appealing. In the wake of the uproar over post-bailout bonuses, pork barrel spending and two major political parties beholden to special interest money, the Tea Party has resonated with many Americans by marketing itself as a fresh face. Sarah Palin synthesized this populist anger and outside-the-Beltway idealism in her speech at a February Tea Party Convention: “While people on Main Street look for jobs, people on Wall Street, they’re collecting billions and billions in your bailout bonuses. Among the top 17 companies that received your bailout money, 92 percent of the senior officers and directors, they still have their good jobs. And everyday Americans are wondering, where are the consequences for them helping to get us into this worst economic situation since the Great Depression? Where are the consequences?” Her call for “consequences” speaks to the real uniting factor in the movement: anger. Tea Partiers are angry for a variety of reasons, and it is this mutual emotion that unites them much more than any common gripe about specific policies. This anger is what requires serious attention. Vaunted leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky noted in a recent speech at the University of Wisconsin, “the level of anger and fear is like nothing I can compare in my lifetime.” Chomsky gave a terrifying projection of where Tea Party fervor could potentially lead: “I’m just old enough to have heard a number of Hitler’s speeches on the radio, and I have a memory of the texture and the tone of the cheering mobs, and I have the dread sense of the dark clouds of fascism gathering [in the United States]. In 1928 the Nazis had less than two percent of the vote. Two years later, millions supported them. The public got tired of the incessant wrangling, and the service to the powerful, and the failure of those in power to deal with their grievances.” While it appears we are safe, for the moment, from the grip of a fascist regime, it is high time to stop dismissing the Tea Party. Until now, we have failed to consider the roots of the movement. Political strategy has instead focused on how best to silence Tea Partiers.

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FROM THE EDITORS AWOL’S $12,000 BUDGET

WITH STRINGS ATTACHED? You probably don’t remember the first installment of AWOL, even if you were at AU in the spring of 2008. One thousand copies of “Issue 001 - Trapped” were printed, though few AU students knew the publication existed. Back then AWOL was contraband, with “Trapped” funded only by a $1,500 grant from the Center for American Progress (CAP) and $400 out of the pockets of a devoted editor who couldn’t afford it. Since the AU Media Board hadn’t yet approved us, we weren’t officially permitted to distribute on campus. Cleaning staff were instructed to throw away non-approved publications and many copies of that first issue of AWOL ended up in the trash. We relished our underground status, but few people read the magazine. Two years later, things couldn’t be more different. We were approved by the Media Board in the spring of 2009 and became a recognized entity of AU. No longer is AWOL run from a private bank account, nor do we need to accost strangers in MGC in order to circulate our publication. What does Media Board recognition mean? It means we have to follow AU’s inclusion and non-discrimination policies and follow University bureaucratic protocol when organizing events. The University legal team has to sign off on all contracts in our name. It also means AU’s lawyers will stick up for us if we get into trouble. And we can use University resources and facilities and distribute our magazines wherever we’d like on campus, assured that our work won’t be unceremoniously dumped into recycling bins. Oh, and this year, it means we receive $9,395 from AU, on top of about $2,900 from CAP. It is time to explore the foundations of their grievances, unknown though they may be even to Tea Partiers themselves. Tea Parties do not exist when people have good jobs, nor do they exist when government holds power — and profit greedy corporate institutions at a safe distance. Defusing Tea Party anger means developing real solutions to real problems. Mostly, however, it is time to give the Tea Party the careful consideration for which it calls. It is a movement that is large, angry, wellorganized and only growing in momentum. In the words of Chomsky, “Ridiculing the Tea Party shenanigans is a serious error.” s

Peter Harrison is a senior studying political philosophy.

A $12,295 budget is larger than we ever dreamed of and it’s allowing us to drastically expand our reach both on and off campus. But as a publication that values its independence, roguish origins and dedication to critical inquiry, we feel compelled to ask: What does this money mean for our editorial independence? Where does it come from? What strings are attached? What will — and won’t — AU let us do with it? *** “The bottom line is you’re editorially independent, which is part of the way we govern student media on campus,” Student Activities director Karen Gerlach told us. But our freedom of expression is not guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment states that gov-

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Informed opinion and provocative editorial

ernment can’t restrict free speech; private educational institutions aren’t bound by it. “For private schools, their stance on free speech is more a reflection of their educational and societal philosophies than something merely compelled by law,” said Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center. As voluntary members of a private organization, we must submit ourselves to its rules or risk expulsion. Some schools have embraced the First Amendment spirit. Yale University, for instance, has a written agreement with its students and faculty to protect free speech. AU doesn’t have this, but AU’s Academic Regulations on Student Media emphasize that AU “encourages the student media to practice the fullest possible freedom of expression commensurate with University policies.” And it seems that AU is willing to put that philosophy into practice. A former editor of The Eagle who wished to remain anonymous due to the regulations of his current job recounted his experience for us. “I wrote quite a few critical stories during my time at AU, many of them about specific offices and officials,” he wrote in an email, but “never once did the University leverage its financial relationship with The Eagle to preempt a story, or threaten to cease helping us once it was printed.” (In addition to its on campus office space, The Eagle receives a line of credit from the University so it can begin printing each year before ad revenue begins coming in.) Moreover, even after The Eagle printed a controversial column last spring on date rape that prompted outrage from much of the student body, senior University officials reiterated their commitment to free speech. In a letter to the University community, Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson and Provost Scott Bass wrote: “AU also has a commitment to freedom of expression. Consistent with that commitment, individuals have the right to express their opinions — even opinions we find offensive.” *** Gerlach also explained that AWOL’s money comes from activity fees, not AU funds. “It’s all decided on by the Media Board,” she said. “They decide where allocations go, so administratively we have no control over how much funds you get to use toward your publication.” This academic year, every student paid a $73.50 activity fee. Fourteen percent of that amount fuels the organizations that comprise the Media Board: ATV, WVAU, American Literary, AmWord, The Talon and AWOL. That’s about $114,000 allocated at a yearly meeting, based on the consensus of media organization leaders. The process is entirely student-run, which is encouraging to organizations wary of offending the AU establishment. Additionally, “We do no prior review of content,” Gerlach said. That is, AWOL is not forced to have Student Activities review what we intend to publish. But that alone doesn’t guarantee us free rein. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rates U.S. colleges and universities on their free speech practices. Based mostly on the length and — in their opinion — restrictive nature of AU’s harassment policies, FIRE gave AU a rating of “red,” the worst there is. Harassment isn’t the only way we can go wrong. Among other procedural infractions, the Media Board constitution cites “mismanage-

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MEDIA BOARD ALLOCATIONS FOR FISCAL YEAR 2011 Amlit

$23,812

Talon

$21,870

ATV

$21,426

AmWord

$14,226

AWOL

$9,395

WVAU Stipends for media leaders

$7,910

Total

$114,711

$16,072

ment of budget and/or staff” and “unethical practices” as potential grounds for impeachment of publication staff. The Media Board also has a formal process for filing complaints against whole publications. If the review process finds that a student media outlet has violated the Media Board constitution, punishments range from official written reprimands to the prohibition of “future financial allocations to the offending medium.” That is, our $9,395. Publication heads can also be impeached if they are found to have violated the Student Conduct Code by Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution Services (SCCRS). This means that AWOL must follow the Student Conduct Code. Though we could advocate against it, if writers or editors violate or admit to violating it in print they can potentially face SCCRS discipline. *** While we don’t have impunity from institutional meddling, we have plenty of evidence to suggest that AU has a culture respectful of free speech and the autonomy of student publications. When the going gets rough, AU has held to this policy. For that they should be commended. So what are we doing with our money? It can cost up to $3,000 to print an issue of the magazine, and this year we intend to publish three times. The remainder of the money will be spent on maintaining our website, buying software like Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Word for our new office computer, hosting magazine release parties and other miscellaneous expenses. We’ll do all of it with confidence in our autonomy. The Media Board is an institutional structure that protects student publications by keeping funding decisions firmly under student control. It would take an outrageous abuse of power by any University official to successfully interfere in this process. s


PAINTINGS, PARTIES AND PERFORMANCES

THE MANY FACES OF THE KATZEN ARTS CENTER Story and art by Emily Reid

Last year, AU announced its decision to replace the Art History Department’s most prized, high-tech classroom with a welcome center for prospective students. Art History isn’t the only department whose academic operation has been subordinated for the sake of AU public relations — it seems that simply being housed in the Katzen Arts Center is enough to relegate a program to second-class status. Katzen is like an adopted home for AU’s art, music and theater majors. They practice, perform, exhibit and occasionally sleep in its halls. But any student who has taken a class in Katzen is familiar with the building’s other, less academic use: event space. It’s not uncommon to arrive to practice an instrument or work on a painting only to find yourself in the middle of a black-tie charity event, a reception or a speech. Nor is it uncommon to go to class and come out hours later to find the entire building transformed into an elegant ballroom. Prior to the construction of Katzen, the Arts and Performing Arts departments were scattered around campus, housed in Watkins, McKinley, Kreeger and other buildings certainly less than ideal for arts programs. Don Kimes, former Art Department chair and current professor, said that when he arrived at AU in 1988, plans for a new arts building were already underway. Event hosting wasn’t originally part of the plan for the new building, according to Kimes; but it wasn’t long before “there was recognition of the fact that it was really a great space and they could generate revenue by renting it out, instead of hiking tuition.” According to AU’s website, the building’s rotunda can be rented

for an entire day for $1,200. Katzen has played host to art auctions, performances, receptions and even weddings. Originally, however, the plans for the building were strictly academic, laying out spaces for the AU Museum and the rotunda, which, according to Kimes, was to be a space for exhibitions of student work. Outside art shows often appear on the walls of the building, puzzling students who know nothing of the work save that it is not generated by AU students or faculty. It’s fine to bring outside talent to AU, but events held in the rotunda sometimes demand that student art be removed from its walls for the duration of the event. In these instances, “the showing of student work becomes secondary to the event,” sculpture professor Andy Holtin said. For a studio art major, this undermines a necessary and valuable component of the artistic process. Except for when classes were canceled last fall for the President’s Dinner, events do not make student work impossible. They can, however, make it problematic. Events are often attended by guests in suits, ties and evening gowns, which is a bit awkward for students dressed in painting clothes. It’s natural to feel odd walking through a stranger’s wedding, but here, students are being made to feel unwelcome in the building in which they are required to work. “Practicing our instruments, drawing, painting, rehearsing — these are equivalents of studying,” said AJ Welch, a senior performance music major. “You wouldn’t stage a wedding in the middle of the library.” And while rehearsal requires less solemnity than the library, events are still disruptive. Students in Kogod or Hurst would be

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mystified by the presence of bridesmaids. In Katzen, you get used to it. Assistant art professor Isabel Manalo cited incidents when student work was removed from display locations without instructors being notified. In some cases, it was later found stacked haphazardly in unused classrooms. This sort of treatment shows a lack of respect for student work, but also reveals problems involving communication, organization and the structural failing of the Katzen building to serve one of its primary purposes. Manalo hopes that “the art departments and the building can work together” to use the space in a mutually agreeable way. Jason Lurie, Facilities Manager for the Katzen building, stresses that academics have always been a priority, saying that for every one private event hosted at Katzen, 10 to 15 more are rejected.

“Students come first,” Lurie said. “And we work to minimize any type of academic interference.” Katzen, he said, has become the ideal venue for many events, whether related to AU or not, but everyone, including the University President, has to go through the same process to rent out the building. “We are trying to accommodate everybody,” Lurie said. Far from feeling accommodated, though, many students feel no more than a grudging tolerance toward Katzen events — mostly because free food is often provided, which Katzen students take as payment for dealing with the interruption events cause. It seems the “starving artist” stereotype is alive and well. s

Emily Reid is a senior studying studio art.

THE HOME FRONT:

WHERE THE RECESSION REALLY MATTERS By Richard Phillips // Photo by Louise Brask

If the recession ended a year ago, why does it feel like our economy is still in shambles? Turn on any news station and you will be bombarded with people and institutions to blame. It’s the Obama administration’s fault. It’s the Republicans’ fault. It’s Wall Street’s fault. It’s the banks’ fault. It’s the media’s fault. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but most of the damage has been closer to home. State and local governments have faced an economic nightmare: so far in 2010, state governments have faced a combined deficit of over $192 billion — almost a third of their overall budgets. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 46 states have cut their budgets since 2008, affecting all major areas of state services, from health care to higher education. Last year in Washington, DC, the government opted to cut $60 million from social safety net programs in order to stem a fiscal crisis. Many programs had already been stretched to the limits as demand for services grew during the recession. But at the time when they were most needed, these programs were being downsized. This past summer, hundreds of families were turned away from homeless shelters because the shelters did not receive enough funding to help all of those in need. For many low-income families, these shelters represented a last refuge to escape the extreme heat. But because of the budget cuts, the D.C. government left them to languish in the sun. Unlike many of the jobs lost due to the financial crisis, these state and local disasters could have been prevented. If state and local officials had temporarily enacted progressive income tax codes

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“When people understand how the numbers translate with regard to their quality of life, the budget crisis becomes very real.” (those that require higher income earners to pay a higher percentage in taxes), they could have eased the sting of the recession for millions of Americans. Here in D.C., a group of activists haven’t given up the fight. “When people understand how the numbers translate with regard to their quality of life, the budget crisis becomes very real,” said April Goggans, a member of the Save Our Safety Net campaign. The Save Our Safety Net (SOS) campaign started last summer with one policy goal: to raise taxes for high-income earners in order to support social programs. They demanded that income over $200,000 be taxed at a rate of 9 percent instead of the current 8.5 percent, and that any income over one million dollars be taxed at a rate of 9.4 percent. Taken together this would raise the roughly $60 million dollars needed to restore the safety net funding cut the year before.


The imposition of this “millionaire’s tax” would not have been an unfair burden on the rich communities of D.C. According to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the bottom 80 percent of wage earners pay, on average, 8.8 percent of their income in taxes. Meanwhile, the top 20 percent of earners pay only 7.7 percent of their incomes. This means that that D.C. tax system is regressive: those with the least to spare pay a larger chunk of their income. Adding the millionaire’s tax would not only have provided a basic safety net for thousands of desperate D.C. residents, it also would have made the D.C. tax system a little fairer. “Our campaign worked very hard on messaging the new tax brackets we proposed,” said Joni Rebekah, a member of the Save Our Safety Net steering committee. “We kept the focus on the choice between the tangible benefits of safety net programs and continuing a tax structure that unfairly benefited the most wealthy.” Despite receiving significant media coverage, the support of a wide swath of D.C. residents, and the backing of five city council members (who went as far as to don the Save Our Safety Net superhero capes), the D.C. Council voted not to adopt the new tax. It did, however, vote in favor of restoring $11 million of the funding.

“The fact that new tax brackets came to a vote on the Council was a success” said Rebekah. “Through our mainstream and social media work, and creative direct actions that interrupted business as usual, we were able to change the debate and the understanding of what was possible.” Government — whether local, state or federal — is supposed to be our lifeline during recessions, helping to bolster the economy and keep individuals afloat. With a national political ethos so averse to taxation, progressives need to step up their efforts and call for relief at any cost. As D.C. faces a $175 million deficit next year, our own community’s safety net is at risk of even deeper cuts. To stop these cuts in our own local D.C. community and similar threats from around the nation, we must follow SOS’s lead and show the politicians that we will not stand for it. s SOS-DC is currently looking for volunteers to help with Council engagement, blogging, and organizing high-income communities. AU students should contact savedcsafetynet@gmail.com to get involved.

Richard Phillips is a graduate student studying public policy. WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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In-depth examination of the issues that matter


GAY AND GRȉȉK HOW LGBTQ STUDENTS NAVIGATE AU FRATERNITY CULTURE By Ashley Dejean Illustration by Margaret Hayford // Photos by Amberley Romo

Junior Tom McNutt experiences fraternity life at AU a little differently than most of his brothers. McNutt, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, is part of an increasingly noticeable group of AU students who have not historically been known to join the fraternity ranks, at least openly: gay men. “There were some awkward conversations in the first week,” he said. “The best was one kid trying to tell me how to pick up girls, and I’m just sitting there in the corner, and everyone else knew, but he was still talking to me.” McNutt knew many of the Sig Ep brothers before he rushed the fall semester of his sophomore year, and had already come out to them. “They’re encouraging of my gay social life,” he said. “They want me to have a boyfriend and get out and have fun, and that’s just great. They’re not even just tolerant — they’re supportive.” Doesn’t that strike you as a quintessentially AU story? At our bastion of social engagement and east coast liberalism, it’s totally cool for one of the bros to just dig dudes. Newsweek ranked AU as the sixth-most gay-friendly school in the country this past September, and openly gay fraternity brothers are visible on campus. But we’re not perfect. Liberalism, the historically macho culture of fraternity life and a vocal LGBTQ community have proven a potent mix. McNutt has successfully navigated the two communities, and so have many other students. Not all of them though. *** In fall 2009, a member of AU’s LGBTQ community was waiting on the LA Quad for a ride to a frat party with her friends. “One friend went up and asked a frat brother if there was any chance that our group would get a ride soon,” she told AWOL in an email. “The brother responded by laughing and saying there was no chance. When we asked him why, he pointed at me and said ‘Well, I don’t even know what that is!’ My friends almost got into a fight with him and his brothers, but then we left.” She tried to laugh it off, but was unable to shake his words. “I got really insecure about my presentation and was worried other people would read me as a man or as a ‘that,’ like he had called me,” she said. “I haven’t even tried to go to a frat since. The whole incident really colored my perception of Greek life, and of frat parties.” Allegations of such scarring discrimination within fraternity life are few and far between — but this isn’t the only one, and a little bit goes a long way. Even a few incidents can lead to whispers, rumors and apprehensions that eventually paint a dark portrait of AU Greek culture.

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In-depth examination of the issues that matter

going on,” the gay student said. “It took me a minute to comprehend, but after I started getting looks from a couple other brothers, I removed myself from the downstairs and told a few of my friends that I was leaving. After they heard the situation, they agreed to leave with me. Internally, I did not understand why I was not welcome, because this is American University.” AU, he said, was supposed to be “a school accepting of all individuals and all beliefs.” The individual in question told AWOL that he never used the word “fags.” He also claimed he never kicked out the student, but threatened to do so if he continued making unwanted advances toward another male at the party. The student disputes this account, claiming he made no such advances. The president of the fraternity adamantly denied that any wrongdoing occurred. He and the accused brother threatened to sue AWOL for libel when they were contacted about this article. Freshman Tyler Toomey heard about such incidents, but he has found a way to still enjoy fraternity parties: “I’ve definitely decided that I would go with a close group of friends to frats that I don’t necessarily go to regularly just in case something were to happen.” Even if Toomey is cautious, Carter Gibson still argues that AU Greek life is open and accepting.

Junior Tom McNutt, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon.

These apprehensions aren’t new. When bisexual graduate student Leah Gates started her undergraduate career in 2005, she heard about brothers saying things like “Sorry, no room for dykes on this trip.” Even though nothing like this has ever happened to her or a friend, these stories had an impact. Gates, now about to finish graduate school, has never been to a fraternity party at AU. Junior Carter Gibson, a brother of Delta Tau Delta, sits on the Interfraternity Council (IFC) as vice president. He identifies as gay and feels that AU fraternities are inclusive toward the LGBTQ community. He can attest: his sexual orientation has never been an issue for his fraternity brothers. “They were curious about my sexuality and wanted to feel out how it impacted my personality, but were never disrespectful,” Gibson said. “Of course there are jokes made, but if they’re comfortable enough around me to make them, that makes me happy. They’re always careful to not cross the line.” But do others cross the line? *** This year during Welcome Week, an AU fraternity was hosting a party. A gay student in attendance claims he was asked to leave by a fraternity brother, who allegedly said “We don’t allow fags here.” “At first, I stood there for a minute and didn’t understand what was

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“What I think is really cool about these stories even coming up is the fact that this kind of stuff happens so infrequently that these instances become such a big deal,” Gibson said. “Especially when we talk about what happened at that one fraternity party with someone being called a fag. The fact that I’ve been approached about this four or five times — it’s the only one that I’ve really been approached about — I think that shows how far and beyond our Greek community is, beyond so many other state schools, private schools; I would even go as far to say GW.”

“Of course there are jokes made, but if they’re comfortable enough around me to make them, that makes me happy.” Gibson acted as the interim president of the IFC for four months when the former president left AU. There’s certainly room for more tolerance within fraternity life, Gibson said, but he contends that AU fraternities have a lot to be proud of: “I really think it shows leaps and bounds that I’ve been in my leadership role for as long as I have, and the fraternity community allowed a gay man to essentially make all of their important decisions.” *** One AU freshman was walking home with a boy from a fraternity party her second night on campus. About a quarter of the way back to her dorm, he decided to go back to the party. “I mentioned my girlfriend and he was like ‘Oh, that’s really funny,’” she said. “Then he walked with me a little bit longer [and said], ‘I think I’m going to go back to the party now.’” Puzzled, she asked why he was leaving; he responded, “I’ll have better luck there.”


This illustrates what might be a bigger barrier to gay students’ participation in fraternity life: girls. It’s an issue that can manifest itself in every corner of the fraternity system. For example, getting rides to parties. Sophomore Adam Powers has only been to a couple fraternity parties, but he finds the focus on getting girls ubiquitous. “Lucky for me, I’m a cute little gay boy with tons of beautiful women friends to get rides with,” Powers said. “But that right there — that creates this assumption that the party is for my female friends and not for me, like I’m not the one that they actually want there.” “It’s interesting because a lot of the time it gets heteronormative,” junior Eric Lynch of Pi Kappa Phi said. “A lot of the focus at parties is getting women. And you know, not all of us are there in order to meet women in terms of hookups and stuff.” Lynch is another gay AU fraternity brother. He used to have a negative perception of fraternities, but decided to give Greek life a chance his sophomore year and rushed. “I was looking for brotherhood — it was always something that I was lacking,” he said. He has been impressed by how accepting and open-minded his brothers have been, but he noted that at times they could be more conscientious with their word choice. Sometimes, brothers are told they “can bring girlfriends” to certain events, for instance. With a social structure built on traditionally masculine ideals and norms, in which women become

“Lucky for me, I’m a cute little gay boy with tons of beautiful women friends to get rides with. But that right there — that creates this assumption that the party is for my female friends and not for me, like I’m not the one that they actually want there.” objects of sexual desire and a barometer of a party’s success, a guy who likes guys doesn’t always fit neatly into the system. That doesn’t mean that the system can’t adapt, but rather that it favors the interests — at least the romantic or sexual interests — of straight men over gay men. Lynch’s experience perhaps best illustrates the intersection of gay and Greek at AU. Pi Kapp has given him the brotherhood he yearned for and overturned his preconceived notions, but when talk turns to girls and girlfriends, not all brothers remember boys and boyfriends. “I could be more concerned about it,” he said. “But I’ve just come to accept it and realize that they do their best with trying to be more inclusive.” s

Ashley Dejean is a sophomore studying international relations.

Carter Gibson, a member of Delta Tau Delta.

WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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FIELD REPORTS

In-depth examination of the issues that matter

VOLUNTEERS FOR EMPIRE

OUR HELP ISN’T HELPING By Robbie Cavooris // Illustration by Hannah Karl

ments for beer and soda glared down from the sides of convenience stores — the only stores around — at folks who scraped by on two daily meals of rice and beans. And I found myself in the middle of it all, not knowing what the hell I was doing. The Pictionary-style game wasn’t the worst learning aid I had improvised, but attempts to jumpstart my students were always a reminder of my stinging failure to make any progress. I sketched a dog on the whiteboard. No one raised a hand.

As I fumbled through the day’s lesson plan, I realized I wasn’t going to fill enough time. “Uh, all right,” I said in Spanish, “Now we’re going to play a game. I’ll draw an animal on the board, and you all raise your hands if you know its name in English.” Here I was in a villa miseria, an urban shanty town on the outskirts of Santa Marta, Colombia. I had decided to devote a month of my year studying abroad to doing something “constructive” — something that would separate me from all the rich North American travelers who vacationed in Latin America, oblivious to the indigent poverty all around them. So I was teaching English to a group of students between the ages of five and 18 in the dirt backyard of a two-room shack. The family of four that lived there shared one bedroom and had no indoor plumbing. The neighborhood was a wasteland of globalization — the market had managed to dump some cheap goods, but the price the community paid for them was dependency and degradation. Children played among jumbles of brand-name trash in the streets. Cheery advertise-

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I trudged home from class that day feeling both dejected and curious. I apparently didn’t know how to teach English, but why did I feel so capable in the first place? And what was teaching English going to do anyway? Had I reflected beforehand on the significance — or insignificance — of my efforts in Santa Marta, I would never have gone at all. *** Service is our core ethic here at AU. Our motto says it all: “Ideas into Action. Action into Service.” But that three-part translation isn’t always so easy. Even when our ideas drive us to act, service is not necessarily the result. Sarah Robbins, a senior at AU studying international studies and health promotion, volunteered with a home-based health care organization while studying in Nairobi, Kenya. She had gone abroad, like me, with good intentions and high expectations. “I thought that since I kind of had a grasp on the language and had done this before that I’d be a lot more help,” said Robbins. “After deal-


ing with it for the first couple of months, it was kind of the opposite. I was just a burden. I couldn’t really keep up with the conversation so I felt like I was just being dragged along.” Laura Castelli, a senior in SIS, was with Robbins in Nairobi. She interned with The Center for Domestic Training and Development, a support organization for women who had migrated to the city in search of work. Castelli had gone believing she could offer something, but was surprised when her supervisors asked her to teach a class about reproductive health, a task she wasn’t qualified to tackle. “I felt like in that society they really honored elders, and I was so young. But because I was white, it was like my opinion was ‘it,’” she said. “They always looked to me.” She found this sort of unwarranted esteem throughout her work in Nairobi. Her Kenyan supervisors wanted her help with IT work, even though she admits she’s no computer expert. Then they asked if she could edit some fundraising materials they had drafted, but according to Castelli, their British colonial past meant they were fluent English speakers. I was familiar with that pattern. When I was in Santa Marta, the founder of the organization where I worked asked me if I wanted to design a comprehensive curriculum or organize an international fundraising drive. Of course, I could barely conduct a few English classes, let alone take on one of those weighty jobs in my one-month stint. This experience isn’t uncommon, according to Tori Hogan, former international aid worker and creator of the web documentary series “Beyond Good Intentions,” which explores the effectiveness of international development aid. Local staff and management tend to project imagined expertise onto their foreign volunteers. “With volunteers there, the local management is always questioning themselves, and they might lose self confidence,” Hogan said. Locals flatter us, but they don’t really expect us to do all that much. Can’t make it to a meeting on time? Not a problem. Can’t make it at all? Don’t worry about it. We know you American kids mean well, and we should be thankful you’re here at all. As one American co-volunteer told me over after-work cocktails: “I guess that’s why I love volunteering. Because no one can ever expect too much of you!” Such a statement begs the question: who is serving whom? *** Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher and social critic, compared the role of volunteers like us to that of missionaries. In a 1968 address to a group of young American volunteers about to leave for Mexico, he told them: “You are ultimately — consciously or unconsciously — ‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.” His point is that when volunteers like me arrive in places like Santa Marta, Colombia, we’re not “helping.” Instead, we are walking advertisements for a basket of ideological goods that are irrelevant in the context of complete marginalization – cultural ideas that only appeal to us because they justify our excessive wealth. All over the global South, the United States is the exemplar of development, making us volunteers an embodiment of the desired standard of living in underdeveloped countries. But even more, the entire institution of international aid is based on the superiority of our way

“You are ultimately – consciously or unconsciously – ‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.” of life (Democracy! Equal opportunity! Free enterprise!) and helping these poor “underdeveloped” folks achieve the same enlightened system we have. My impact as a volunteer was to create an ideological space for accepting the status quo. I was like a Christian missionary who tells the natives: “Don’t worry if it seems bad now — it will all pay off in the end.” But there’s nothing equal about the opportunities given to a child who grows up in a Colombian slum, and there’s nothing democratic about a political system run by a wealthy elite. It won’t pay off in the end. Teaching English could never solve the problems faced by a dirt-poor community, ignored by its own national government. At best, one or two of my students might eventually master the English language, giving them the cultural capital they need to leave home in search of opportunity among Colombia’s elite or with some transnational company. Even this would bring little substantive change: I’d be helping one lucky kid, but at the same time bolstering a system of cultural dominance that won’t permit economic advancement for those who can’t speak English. And that might be the most disturbing of the realizations I’ve had since returning from Colombia: Even when volunteer efforts like mine are successful, all they do is strengthen the current state of things. “Whether sincere or hypocritical, [charity] is the logical concluding point of capitalist circulation, necessary from the strictly economic standpoint, since it allows the capitalist system to postpone its crisis,” political and social theorist Slavoj Zizek writes in his book In Defense of Lost Causes. In other words, charity doesn’t bring greater equality. It just ensures that unequal conditions don’t get too unequal, since that would endanger the present system. And this system, it seems, is what volunteers really serve. *** In light of all this, some might ask, “Well what am I supposed to do? Just stay home? Not even try to help?” But the real solutions might be closer to home than we realize. The core institutions that reproduce global inequality — the IMF, the World Bank, Congress, the White House — sit just a few blocks away from AU. Students here have a unique measure of access to the levers of global change. We can stand up together and say “Enough!” to those who champion neo-liberal policies and free markets without acknowledging their destructive sideeffects. Instead of flying halfway around the world to reinforce these failed policies, we could be marching downtown to really change them. Maybe we wouldn’t see that change in our lifetime. Maybe we’d never be recognized for our efforts. But maybe that is the real meaning of service: to lose ourselves in a collective struggle toward a brighter future. s

Robbie Cavooris is a senior studying international relations.

WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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FIELD REPORTS REPORTS FIELD

In-depth examination of the issues that matter

REVOLUTIONARY TOURISM

CUBA’S DEAL WITH THE DEVIL By Chris Lewis

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio. Cuba: The island 90 miles south of Florida is an alluring mix of tropical heat, fine cigars and bearded revolutionaries. The nation is shrouded in mystery for most Americans, but a study abroad license allows a handful of AU students to visit for a semester. Here, Che Guevara is universally revered, young people dismiss American music that they find “too materialistic,” and there are no advertisements — only Revolutionary slogans. In short, it’s not like every other Caribbean island. That’s what makes the presence of run-of-the-mill Caribbean tourism so puzzling.

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Mural, Havana. “In every neighborhood, Revolution.” The Cuban Revolution of 1959 brought cataclysmic change to the island. For the first time in centuries, Cuba was free from foreign domination. Over the course of decades, the Revolution blunted economic stratification, reduced racial segregation, eradicated illiteracy, and brought Western health standards to the Third World nation. It was all made possible through Cuba’s extensive economic ties to the Soviet Union.

Resort, Cayo Santa Maria. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s economy was sent reeling, sparking the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. Then-president Fidel Castro proclaimed that the Revolution had to make a “deal with the Devil” to survive. The Revolution turned to foreign tourism in hopes of finding an economic jolt.

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FIELD REPORTS

In-depth examination of the issues that matter

Town square, Santiago. The need to please deeppocketed foreigners proved to be a paradox for the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. This sign reads “tourism parking only.� This unembellished inequality emerged only after 1990 and is still jarring to a Cuban populace accustomed to an ethos of equality.

Fishermen, Cayo Santa Maria. Cubans gather starfish to sell to tourist hotels as decorations, part of a mass labor migration into the tourist industry. Cubans speak of teachers who became taxi drivers and doctors who became bellhops, all in pursuit of much-needed tips from tourists in foreign currency.

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Souvenirs, Trinidad. 1950s-era American cars: no longer just a utilitarian mode of transportation, Cuba’s automotive icons are now a source of quick cash.

Beach, Cayo Santa Maria. One of the Revolution’s first acts was to make all Cuban beaches public. And while Cubans still enjoy the benefits of their beautiful Caribbean coast, it’s vacationing Spaniards and Canadians who frequent the most pristine beaches. Chris Lewis is a senior studying economics, and studied abroad in Cuba last spring. He is the Editor-in-Chief of AWOL.

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FIELD REPORTS

In-depth examination of the issues that matter

NO / WONK

ADVANCING UNIVERSITIES INSTEAD OF STUDENTS By Erin Lockwood // Photo by Amberley Romo

Not long ago, the Davenport Coffee Lounge received a dubious donation from AU’s University Communications and Marketing (UCM) office: coffee mugs, painted with white block capital letters. They read “KNOW,” and underneath, “WONK.” Dr. Teresa Flannery, UCM’s Executive Director, said the mugs were intended to give faculty “who don’t tend to wear t-shirts” a chance to rep AU’s new branding initiative. However, what seemed like a keen marketing move was soon subtly subverted. Where the mugs had previously read KNOW/WONK, the “K” and “W” of KNOW were scratched off. They now defiantly assert NO/WONK. The WONK campaign is AU’s new plan to hype its “active citizenship” and prime Washington location to prospective students. It has been controversial since the beginning. The Davenport incident may seem like little more than a sophomoric prank, but it’s indicative of the opposition the WONK campaign has ignited in the AU community — and more generally, of the uncomfortable position marketing occupies in the university world. Even 15 years ago, Flannery said, universities tended to be much more squeamish about “selling” themselves. But now universities are branding and marketing themselves like never before. To market a university, it seems, is to establish a consumer relationship; the educational, social and spiritual services a university provides are the product, and the students are the consumers. But is this “market” relationship a natural arrangement for higher education? Is it possible — or logical — to consider a university a product? What if intellectual gathering places like AU are intrinsically different from commercial purveyors of knowledge like Kaplan Test Prep or Rosetta Stone, and therefore ill-suited to attempts at “selling”? “The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage,” said German sociologist Max Weber, while addressing the University of Munich in 1918. Although he critiqued the commodification of the American higher education system, his words resonate today in the context of marketing higher education. According to Flannery, contemporary marketers try to communicate what is distinctive about a particular college or university with the goal of increasing recruitment yields and alumni “satisfaction” – a word that tends to mean financial contributions. The process of marketing a university is thus driven by the exchange of value that it represents: “Exchanging tuition and fees — and later on, support for the university and advocacy on its behalf — for an education and degree,” Flannery said. But how far can the metaphor of

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the market be taken? Weber saw the university as qualitatively distinct from the greengrocer, and not for economic reasons. “Science,” Weber told the University of Munich, “can contribute something that the greengrocer cannot: methods of thinking, the tools and the training of thought.” These methods of thinking may be means to an economic end, and indeed, they have practical benefits in a depressed and increasingly competitive job market. A Jan. 2010 survey of 302 employers, conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, found that 81 percent of employers believe that that universities should place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. But if a liberal university education can produce a better businessman, it does so precisely by rejecting the virtues that business rewards. In Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, David Kirp argues that the purpose of the university remains fundamentally at odds with the ethos of the marketplace. He writes: “Embedded in the very idea of the university — not the storybook idea, but the university at its truest and best — are values that the market does not honor: the belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers, in the idea of openness and not ownership, in the professor as a pursuer of truth and not an entrepreneur, in the student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisfied.”

“Quantifiable metrics are well-suited to the mathematized world of business and economics, and good indicators of American University’s prestige and financial health. They have little impact, however, on the academic experience of current AU students.” These non-economic values are perhaps most visible to students in AU’s General Education Program. According to Dr. Patrick Jackson, the program’s director, the goal of General Education is to provide a solid foundation for both a career and a life as a generally educated person. Highlighting the arrangement of buildings at AU, Jackson emphasizes the distinctiveness of the time, space and habits of the university experience, arguing that much of the university is deliberately


constructed to be inefficient. “College,” he said, in an address to this year’s incoming University College students, “is separated out to enable a measure of clarity, of insight, of comprehensiveness that is hard to achieve in the bustle of everyday living.” If the metaphor of the market is so ill-suited to higher education generally — and to undergraduate education at AU specifically — why market at all? According to Flannery, marketing is less about treating universities like businesses, or even selling a university education, but rather about communicating what is distinctive about a particular university. She agrees that a university experience cannot be reduced to a simple economic transaction. “Universities exist to educate citizens who are going to be able to use their knowledge to participate in government, serve useful lives and help the world,” she said. But with over 3,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States — and many more abroad – seeking to do more or less exactly that, she claims that marketing’s role is to enable students to distinguish among their myriad choices. Flannery differentiates between marketing for a university and marketing for a business. “Higher education has much greater expectations from within the community for being informed and participating in the brand,” she said. “You never would have seen the amount of time and number of people we included in the WONK campaign in a corporate setting.” This level of inclusion was necessary to determine AU’s identity, Flannery said. But as the altered mugs suggest, not everyone on campus identifies with the WONK brand. Members of the AU community have expressed their discontent in blog posts and in online comments on coverage of the campaign by The Eagle and the Washington Post. Students have pointed out the derogatory meanings of the word

“wonk,” criticized its connotation of narrow specialization, and questioned the university’s $675,000 tab for the marketing campaign. But University Communications and Marketing is unfazed by these objections. For a campaign like WONK to be successful, Flannery said, you just need a critical mass who like it, even if most of the community has lukewarm or oppositional feelings toward it. As far as UCM is concerned, the real indicators of the campaign’s succcess will be an improvement in the ratio of students who choose AU compared to students recruited, and in alumni satisfaction. A few cleverly altered mugs and some outraged online comments are unlikely to undermine or change the campaign in any substantive way, because they will not move the key dials that UCM monitors. Community input may have been important during planning, but in the economic context of marketing, numbers are decisive. Quantifiable metrics are well-suited to the mathematized world of business and economics, and good indicators of AU’s prestige and financial health. They have little impact, however, on the academic experience of current AU students. College life is thus subordinated to the selling of college life. Max Weber was a persistent advocate of education as process of personal discovery, not just a means to advance economic status. Weber probably wouldn’t have scratched letters off a coffee mug, but he likely would have admired the sentiment behind the NO/WONK mugs. NO/WONK challenges the idea that universities are part of a commoditized world governed by the supremacy of market forces. It is a challenge that really only makes sense in the context of a liberal university education. AU may well be succeeding in spite of itself. s

Erin Lockwood is a senior studying international relations and economics. WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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In-depth examination of the issues that matter

no place that I could do that! There were no such courses. For reasons that I don’t think I need to explain, I came to American University because of some connections. I taught the African literature course here — not in the English department because the English department didn’t think that this was literature that would qualify to be taught in the department — so I taught those courses in the School of International Service for two summers. It was a literature course, but the English department didn’t think it was. And then, when the General Education Program came in, I saw the opportunity to put three courses in, all that I taught. I was the only person who taught these courses for years: The African Writer, AfricanAmerican literature and Third World literature. I taught them for about fifteen years, and then we finally found somebody who was AfricanAmerican to teach the African-American literature course, and then I continued largely — with some help from some other people — teaching Third World literature and The African Writer, rotating those with occasional graduate courses and you know, other things. So that’s what I’ve done ever since.

How do the African literature classes that you teach today compare with the early ones?

PROFESSOR PROFILE

CHARLES LARSON By Chris Lewis // Photos By Amberley Romo AU’s second-longest teaching faculty member is retiring at the end of this year. Charles R. Larson is a pioneer in the study of African literature in the Western world. Chris Lewis, AWOL editor-in-chief and former Larson pupil, sat down with him to discuss his storied career. Next semester Larson will teach “The African Writer” — once the only African literature course in the United States — here at AU for the final time.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were one of the first professors to teach an African literature class? I was the first person in the United States, possibly in the world, ever to teach a course in African literature.

Can you talk a bit about that? Yeah, that happened because I had been in the Peace Corps in Nigeria from 1962 to 1964, returned, and thought that I was actually going to go to the Iowa Writer’s School for creative writing. I had been admitted to that program, but came back and, because of a series of things, decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in African literature. Well, there was

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The major difference is that the first course that I taught in African literature in the spring of 1965 — during the two years I taught at the University of Colorado — had people like Alan Paton, a white South African, in it, and had a novel by Joyce Cary, who is British. There wasn’t enough African literature to teach a whole course just with African writers. It was also a problem of the availability of the texts, which was extremely limited. Most of the works hadn’t been published in the United States.

Did your interest in Africa start with your Peace Corps experience? Absolutely. I didn’t even know anything about Africa until I went there. Nothing. Have I told you how that happened? I was avoiding the draft. I’d been drafted.

For Vietnam? For Vietnam. My draft board said they would not defer me anymore. They called me for military service. The Peace Corps was brand new, less than a year old. The Peace Corps had what you’d call a psychological aptitude test in those days, mechanically scored. That was how they determined if they would accept you for training or not. I took that on a Friday afternoon in May of 1962, and on the following Monday the Peace Corps called to see if I wanted to go to Nigeria. I didn’t know where Nigeria was, but I said ‘Yes!’ and then I went to my draft board to ask them, ‘Will you defer me for the Peace Corps?’ And they said, ‘What’s the Peace Corps? We don’t know what it is.’ And I explained what it was and they said, ‘Well, we don’t know, we’ll have to think about this, discuss this, and we’ll let you know.’ And a week later, as I was waiting, they called and said, ‘Yes, we’ll defer you for the Peace Corps.’

What did you do in Nigeria? I taught English in a boys’ secondary school in a remote area of southeast Nigeria.


I remember you saying that this happened to be very near the area where Chinua Achebe, the author of the quintessential African novel Things Fall Apart, grew up? Yes, within about seven miles of where the actual town is that became the setting for Things Fall Apart. Now, I never met Achebe when I was in Nigeria. He was usually in Lagos or Ibadan where he was working as a journalist. And he’d already published Things Fall Apart, which I read just before I went to Nigeria. I had started reading Nigerian writers before I went to Nigeria as a Peace Corps volunteer. I didn’t meet Achebe until some years after I got back to the United States.

Though you and Achebe have a relationship that goes back a long time. We have a relationship that goes back, but it was complicated because in my first critical book, The Emergence of African Fiction, he didn’t like what I said about several things including some of his own writing. And so he sort of attacked me, and subsequently we met. We got over that, and we’ve been friends for 30 years.

Moving back to AU, obviously there’s a lot of interest in Africa here on campus, but much of it is more policy-oriented. For students who are interested in the political or economic side of Africa, why do you think it’s important to read books like Things Fall Apart or Nervous Conditions?

That’s the reason I’ve been teaching the course for almost 50 years: there’s no better way to understand Africa, which is still mysterious to most people, than by reading the novels of the writers from the continent, to a lesser extent the plays and the poetry. African literature has been so concerned with political, social, colonial issues. I mean, it has been more directly concerned than Western literature, and by reading those works you get really a first-rate entry into the cultures themselves. And if you’re studying Africa, it ought to be the cultures you focus on and understand.

What is “the ordeal of the African writer”? Well, The Ordeal of the African Writer is the last critical book that I wrote, which is nothing but an overview of the obstacles that African writers have encountered from the beginning of their attempts to publish in Western languages. At the beginning there were no publishing houses in Africa. The writers had to send their manuscripts to Europe to be read by European editors who sometimes rejected books because they didn’t think that they had depicted Africa the way that the Europeans thought it ought to be depicted. There’s one celebrated case of an African writer having a novel rejected with the statement on it: “It’s not African enough.” Part of the ordeal of the African writer is the economic obstacles that exist in so many African societies. Readers, even literate readers, have so little disposable income that they can devote to purchasing books that potential readers in those countries don’t buy books. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart sells 100,000 copies a year in the United States, and something like 2,000 copies per year in Nigeria. That tells the whole story.

So considering the way African literature has changed, what do you now hope to see for the future of Africa? Well, what I hope to see for the future of Africa is that these economies that are so depressed improve so that the potential readers in the African countries can buy these books and read them. There was a time, right after independence in many African countries — Nigeria is a perfect example — when the economy was in pretty good shape, and when many, many Africans were reading works like Things Fall Apart. There was a time when Things Fall Apart sold 100,000 copies per year in Nigeria, but that’s all gone. One of the things that’s changed since the early 1960s, when these countries became independent, is not just the literacy level and the disposable income to buy texts, but that there was a kind of tradition for reading that came out of the colonial schools, and now that’s also changed. That reading audience is not there in the same sense. It wants to read sensational Western novels if it reads anything, not works by African writers. It’s very, very difficult for an African to become a writer and live on his income. Black Africa, south of the Sahara, has four writers who can survive on their writing income. Four! That’s just microscopic. I think all writers, no matter where they’re from, want to be read by the people they are a part of. I think Achebe would prefer to have his readers in Nigeria than in the United States. That’s what I would like to see change. s

An extended version of this interview is online at www.awolau.org.

WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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JABS AND JEST

ISSUE 006

Innovation, wit and cogent wisdom

AWOL NEWSWIRE

FACEBOOK CONTROLS YOU

S

ocial networking site Facebook has been in and out of the news over the past year, mostly over privacy issues that sparked the ire of users. The site has repeatedly changed privacy settings, provided user data to third party vendors through the use of “apps” and often failed to notify users of changes. Every time a controversy flares up, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg makes the relevant changes and apologizes to users for poor communication, or for “innovating too fast.” Trust us, they say, we only have your best interests in mind. What a lot of Facebook users don’t know, however, is that they may not. In fact, Facebook owns everything posted to the site. Just setting up an account signs over the legal rights to all of your photos, status updates, interests and “likes.” Forever. Conceivably, Facebook is legally free to do with this data whatever it wants. Perhaps you haven’t thought much about the implications of such a drastic mass surrender of privacy rights. But you can be sure that Zuckerberg has. -Steve Spires

CIA SOFTWARE, FLAWED?

A

lawsuit filed last December by software developer Intelligent Information Systems (IISi) could strip the CIA of its infamous predator drone software, the technological backbone of the U.S. precision bombing campaign in Pakistan. After IISi refused to submit to an expedited production schedule mandated by the CIA, former partner Netezza allegedly stole the software. However, more shocking than the allegation that drone software was stolen is the allegation that it simply does not work. IISi has repeatedly claimed that its

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NOVEMBER 2010

software is flawed, causing misses of up to 40 feet. In the words of IISi chief technology officer Richard Zimmerman, “My reaction was one of stun, amazement that they want to kill people with my software that doesn’t work.” While it remains to be seen whether the CIA will be forced to explore software alternatives, it’s troubling that drone missiles could be routinely missing their targets by up to 40 feet (think the length of a house) while using stolen software. -Peter Harrison

A LOSS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

T

EARTH’S LOST COUSIN

I

n September 2010, the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii announced the discovery of the first “Goldilocks” planet. For a planet to be considered “just right” to allow for the possibility of life, it must have some very particular characteristics. First, it has to be the appropriate distance from its parent star to allow for liquid water on its surface. It also has to have an atmosphere large enough to contain life, but small enough to avoid overheating due to a runaway greenhouse effect. The Goldilocks planet is named Gilese 581 g, after its parent star, 20 light years (120 trillion miles) away from Earth. To confirm that Gilese 581 g is a true Goldilocks planet, scientists will now need some knowledge of its density and its atmosphere. But its mere existence is encouragement for those in pursuit of extra-terrestrial life and for other similar Goldilocks planets in our Milky Way, which is more than 100,000 light years across and contains at least 200 billion stars. -Seth Shamon

he case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum has been met with regret by many international human rights lawyers. The New York-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling declared that laws allowing for prosecution of international law on U.S. soil are not applicable to violations by corporations abroad because liability is limited to natural persons — not corporations. It is ironic considering that corporations have been granted all the rights and privileges of an individual under U.S. law since 1886. Now, as the dissenting judge in the 2-1 ruling noted, “one who earns profits by commercial exploitation […] can successfully shield those profits from victims’ claims for compensation simply by taking the precaution of conducting the heinous operation in corporate form.” The ruling in this case ended the Nigerian plaintiffs’ attempts to bring Shell Oil to justice for its alleged involvement in the rape, murder and torture of Nigerians opposed to the company’s oil exploration. It also, however, has implications for companies’ actions, like Unocal’s use of forced labor in Burma, Firestone’s use of child labor in Liberia and Coca Cola’s use of paramilitaries in assassinating union leaders in Colombia. The ruling is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court. -Mike Lally


NONSENSICAL DATA

OUR ERRATIC U.S. CENSUS By Nora Pullen // Illustration by Margaret Hayford

It’s a sunny Wednesday morning in July, and a couple of guys in jeans and t-shirts are sitting with their coffees at a table outside Starbucks at 18th and Connecticut. They’re bouncing names off each other: “Russell Johnson, sounds like a black dude.” “Yeah, definitely African-American.” “Brian Matthews?” “Um, I don’t know, white?” This is a situation I witnessed last summer as a U.S. Census enumerator, and one of those guys was my boss. It is from these highly suspect methods that official U.S. Census data is often gathered. But while this may look like no more than two deadbeat employees, the problem is more deeply ingrained in the way Census data is collected. One day, a Census enumerator could be required to make only three personal visits to a location, another day, five. Certainly no more than that, though, despite the fact that the people you were trying to find have jobs and social lives, and don’t necessarily spend their time eagerly waiting at home to tell a Census enumerator when their birthdays are. One week it was acceptable to collect only three pieces of information from each respondent; the next week you would need all seven. So what could you do when you’ve been to a house eight times and the only person you’ve found is a neighbor who isn’t sure, but thinks it’s only Rebecca and Matt — not Hispanics — who live there? You make shit up. Because otherwise, the people at the central office were just going to send the form back to you to knock on the door for the ninth time. Unofficially, of course. The worst part was that sometimes the respondents themselves didn’t even know the right answer. Try telling a Salvadoran with minimal English proficiency that Hispanic is not a race (it’s a separate question on the Census form) and to pick a different one. Then try to produce an accurate racial breakdown of the District of Columbia — which according to 2007 data was 8.3 percent Hispanic — now that all those who would identify as “Hispanic” have been assigned to “white,” “Native American” or “other.” In this way, Census data is highly subject to respondents’ whims and enumerators’ suggestions. But the original purpose of the U.S. Census was not to acquire an accurate racial breakdown of any city, state or nation; it was just to count people. Even that task is difficult. What do you do when the folks in charge ask you to verify that a house is vacant, but a neighbor thinks they see someone there sometimes? Check for dead plants or detritus on the porch. Does it smell like construction? Okay, sounds

good, zero residents at Map Spot 849. But what if I was wrong? Estimates say that the District receives around $4,500 per person from the federal government, so a few mislabeled vacancies can add up. If there were really four people living at Map Spot 849, that’s $18,000 that won’t be distributed to D.C. parks, roads or schools. Has the U.S. Census Bureau favored speed over accuracy? I think so. The Bureau needs to spend the next 10 years before the 2020 Census developing a better inter-office communication system to catch people who fall through the cracks. Also, if Census workers were drawn to enumerate their own neighborhoods rather than bussed in and out, the reliability of data would likely increase, with workers more attuned to respondents’ lifestyles. The cost incurred by paying Census workers for their commute time would also decrease dramatically. Counting millions of people is quite a task. But if the process is ineffective and inefficient, the resulting numbers are meaningless. s

Nora Pullen is a junior studying linguistics.

WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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JABS AND JEST

Innovation, wit and cogent wisdom

SOCRATES AND THE SOPHISTS by John Bly

Forget that it costs over half a million dollars. Ignore that it sounds like a product of name calling between second-graders. Pay no heed to the page of the dictionary defining it as “an unattractive person.” AU refers students, staff and bystanders who don’t know what to make of its new “WONK” campaign to urbandictionary.com, where one learns that a wonk is “An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent.” Anybody who has sat through a few classes at AU can understand why “WONK” appeals to some students. There’s the slum-wonk in a development class who shamelessly proclaims, “Poverty! I know poverty; I’ve seen slums; I studied abroad in India.” In a politics class there’s the CNN-wonk who can expound endlessly on mistakes made by politicians, how she saw those slip-ups coming and how she could have done better herself. And there’s the postmodernism-wonk in a philosophy class who mentions Žižek or Derrida not because he finds them particularly relevant — or even understands them — but because he enjoys the way the names trip off the tip of his tongue.

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AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE MAGAZINE

Other wannabe-wonks offer their opinions with no prompting but feel it unnecessary to listen to others. Bored by their professors as much as by other students, they often turn to their computers or phones for entertainment. In short, they’re already experts and have no need for learning. Socrates was positive that knowledge was reached through questioning, which had to arise from a humble acknowledgment of ignorance. After finding out he had been called the smartest man in the world, Socrates was incredulous and set out in search of someone smarter. Finding and questioning wonk after wonk of his day, he quickly lost hope, concluding “Probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do.” s

John Bly is a senior studying philosophy, environmental studies and international relations. He is an AWOL staff editor.


ANNOUNCING:

THE AWOL BULLETIN BOARD WHAT IS IT? The Bulletin Board is a new feature here at AWOL. It caters primarily to AU clubs and organizations, but it’s open to everyone. Do you have a story to tell or something interesting to say that we missed? This is your chance to write it yourself. AWOL was created with a vision of empowering students who do good things. The Bulletin Board is our newest way of deepening that vision, allowing you to use this magazine as a vehicle to speak about the issues that matter to you.

HOW DOES IT WORK? We’ll accept submissions of 250 words or less: articles, essays, press releases, but not advertisements. Tell us how your environmental organization convinced a local business to offer more organic foods, or how much the fair trade movement has grown on college campuses. Tell us why AU should offer more evening classes, or why narrowing the achievement gap in D.C. public schools is important. Tell us anything. The specifics aren’t important; what’s important is that it be something you care about and want others to know about. Send your piece to us at awolau@gmail.com. It will be edited for length, clarity and style — but not content. We’ll publish as many as we can in the print edition of the magazine, giving preference to the most insightful and interesting pieces. All the rest will be posted on our website.

MAKING AU A FAIR TRADE CAMPUS

SUPPORT MEDICAL MARIJUANA IN DC

air trade is about connecting consumers more directly with the suppliers of a whole wide range of products. It is about acknowledging that, as consumers, we have a responsibility to buy products for which we know the creators are receiving a fair livelihood.

n 1998, the people of Washington, D.C. passed a referendum to legalize the use of medical marijuana for patients with glaucoma, cancer, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis. But Congress, wielding the ultimate legislative authority over the city, did not allow the D.C. government to enact the results. Despite the fact that 69 percent of voters thought patients should have the right to treat pain and illnesses with cannabis, the referendum was shelved. Every year, Congress (in which the people of D.C. have no vote) renewed the ban and denied medicine to the ill. Every year, that is, until now: this July, Congress finally let the will of D.C. voters become law, and medical marijuana can now be used in the District with the recommendation of a doctor.

F

Fair trade certification labels stand as a guarantee that the product you are purchasing was produced with special attention to the welfare of its producers, as well as the environment. The label is also symbolic of efforts to transform a broken and unjust world trade system. For almost 10 years, the AU Fair Trade Student Association (FTSA) has been pushing for the expansion of fair trade products on campus and in the local community. Our persistent campaigning helped bring many fair trade products to campus, like coffee from the Dav or the Pura Vida Coffee offered by Bon Appétit. In 2005, we infamously worked with other groups to block a wholly unfair trade Starbucks from opening in the Mary Graydon Center in favor of a fair trade coffee shop. This year the FTSA is campaigning to get AU itself to be “fair trade certified.” First, this means making fair trade products available in every store and restaurant on campus and making their use standard for University events. In the long term, it means creating mechanisms to ensure that products the University buys come from suppliers who take good care of their producers. s

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But there’s a catch. The law only permits the use of marijuana from District-sanctioned dispensaries. And no such dispensaries exist. Mayor Fenty’s adminisitration had been (slowly) outlining a set of proposed rules to establish legal outlets for the sale of medical marijuana. Now that Fenty is on his way out, it will be up to Mayor-elect Vincent Gray and his staff to give sick patients the medicine they need. And we here at AU’s chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) will be watching and advocating to make sure that happens. s

Students for Sensible Drug Policy au.ssdp@gmail.com

American University Fair Trade Student Association au.ftsa@gmail.com

WWW.AWOLAU.ORG » FALL 2010

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CUBA’S DEAL WITH THE DEVIL PHOTOS

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AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE MAGAZINE

AWOL - Issue 006  

Fall 2010 Issue

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